As first mentioned in a post here. I make the distinction between using a practical approach to evaluating scientific claims – namely, deciding who you trust – to using a philosophical approach – namely, analyzing first if the what is being claimed can even in theory be known via the methods of science, and second, if so, what steps would need to be taken to obtain that knowledge. If it can’t be known via science (e.g., what ought to be done) or the steps needed to know it have not been taken, we owe the claim no allegiance, no matter how qualified and trustworthy the people making the claims are. My approach eliminates from serious consideration about 90% of what is popularly presented as science (instead, it’s Science!, that brand of popular voodoo used by our betters to impress us peons and keep us in line.)
There can be a huge overlap in these methods, but they are fundamentally different. Used well, they should reach about the same conclusions. At least, that’s the idea.
Now, due at least in part to activity in the comboxes involving Simcha and Stacy Trasancos in the controversy over claims that vaccines that use stem cells from aborted babies cause autism, Dr. Trasancos has asked Dr. Briggs to weigh in on the subject:
Stacy Trasancos asked me to review her post “Why Are Catholics Criticizing Dr. Theresa Deisher?“, and in particular the paper “Impact of environmental factors on the prevalence of autistic disorder after 1979″ in Journal of Public Health and Epidemiology by Theresa A. Deisher and four others (Trasancos has links to all the material).
The Statistician to the Stars (SttS from now on) is a brilliant practitioner of the Philosophical approach. While not uninterested in the researcher’s qualifications to do the research, such considerations are rarely enough to determine anything. Instead, he starts with definitions (making the baby Aquinas smile) and then works through *precisely* what is being asserted and *precisely* what steps were taken to reach the conclusion. Then he evaluates if such steps are adequate for the claims made, and then, as a bonus, what steps one would need to have taken in order to support the claims made.
It’s a thing of beauty.
It is Deisher’s (implied) claim that vaccines created (in part) with stem cells “harvested” from the human beings killed for being inconveniences to their mothers are causing an increase in the rate of autism.
OK, that’s a big deal. So break it down, SttS:
There are several matters of interest people are having a difficult time keeping straight. Here’s a list:
Whether it is, or under what circumstances it is, ethical to kill human beings still living inside their mothers.
Whether it is ethical to use the tissue from these killed human beings, considering this tissue might lead to more efficacious or cheaper vaccines (which will surely save lives).
Whether these vaccines might cause any form of autism.
If so, how likely is it to contract some form of autism from these vaccines.
Whether it is ethical for Deisher to investigate these claims, given that she might personally benefit (monetarily or spiritually or whatever) from identifying this cause of autism.
Whether Deisher is a liar, cheat, or a fraud.
That about sums it up. SttS remarks that 1 & 2 are outside the range of this discussion, that the answer to 5 is ‘Yes’, and 6 is ‘No’. The bulk of his post therefore concerns 3 & 4. Rather than just cutting and pasting the whole post, go there! Read it!
So, to sum up the results of the Philosophical Approach to this issue:
1. Yes, the methods of science are in theory adequate to determining this issue;
2. The steps needed have not yet been taken.
What are those steps?
Deisher nowhere measured which vaccines each child received and which child developed autism, which is the only way to demonstrate potential causality. She only (crudely, too) measured various rates of diagnoses. To conclude the changes in these rates must be from the one cause she posited is to commit the epidemiologist fallacy.
Obviously, experiments cannot be run on children to see which vaccines might cause which disease. But vastly superior epidemiology can be performed. Specific records on children (including medical history, genetics, etc.) can be kept, tracking when and what kind of vaccines, and so forth. And because this has become a public concern, such things are being done.
I am (often painfully) aware that I do not think like most people. Perhaps for most people, the practical approach – reasonably deciding who to trust – is better or at least more achievable. It’s true that you don’t need to know anything at all about science to use it. But I’ll stick to the philosophical approach, because I do know a little bit about science, and it seems to give better results.